How the Lack of a Jury Instruction Can Lead to the Reversal of Your Maryland Criminal Conviction

An old Chinese proverb says that a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” A successful defense against criminal charges can be like that. The monumental final destination of acquittal (or reversal of a conviction) involves hundreds or thousands of discrete tiny steps. Make sure that that first single step is getting skillful legal representation from an experienced Maryland criminal defense lawyer.

The right legal team can be crucial in managing the many procedural details that go into a successful outcome. Consider this homicide case from Baltimore as an example.

The case involved a fatal shooting outside a bar in North Baltimore. The victim was behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving “away from an altercation with a group of men” when the shooter fired multiple shots from behind the vehicle.

The state put B.H. on trial for the killing. The prosecution introduced charges for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter. The judge, however, did not give the jury any instructions on involuntary manslaughter. The court convicted B.H. of voluntary manslaughter and acquitted him on the murder charges.

The accused man’s trial and appellate attorneys did several things right to pave the way to the eventual reversal of the manslaughter conviction.

First, B.H.’s legal counsel noticed the ramifications of how the state charged B.H. When the state charged the man, they used something known as a “short-form” indictment. When the state uses a short-form indictment to charge you in a homicide, that means that several potential crimes may be in play, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. If the state does not enter a nolle prosequi on any of the crimes, then all four may remain in play.

The state did not nol pros any crimes in B.H.’s case, so his defense attorney asked the trial judge to give the jury an instruction regarding involuntary manslaughter. The judge refused, concluding that no possible interpretation of the facts could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that this was an unintentional killing. The defense lawyer lodged an objection on the record regarding the denial of the instruction, which proved to be a wise move.

It was wise because B.H.’s appellate counsel used the lack of the jury instruction to obtain a reversal of the voluntary manslaughter conviction. The accused man’s argument was that, based upon the evidence, a reasonable jury could conclude that the fatal shooting was merely a “grossly negligent” act or, in other words, involuntary manslaughter. The shooter shot at the back of an SUV that was driving away in the darkness of night, which arguably pointed towards an intent to scare, intimidate, or threaten — but not kill — the victim.

All That’s Required is ‘Some Evidence’ from Which the Jury Can ‘Make a Rational Finding’

The appeals court explained that involuntary manslaughter via a grossly negligent act need not be the only plausible explanation based on the facts, or even the best explanation, for a defendant to be entitled to demand an involuntary manslaughter instruction. As the court expressly put it, the issue “is not whether the evidence, viewed in the State’s favor, was sufficient to support a finding of voluntary manslaughter; it was. The question is whether there was ‘some evidence’ from which the jury could make a rational finding of involuntary manslaughter.”

Based on the evidence in this trial, involuntary manslaughter would not have been an unreasonable finding for the jury to make, so the judge should have issued the instruction, and the failure to issue it required a reversal of the conviction.

Your criminal case is one comprised of many details — factual details, legal details, and procedural details. You never know what detail will be what emerges as essential to a successful outcome. To make sure no detail goes overlooked in your case, rely on the knowledgeable and diligent Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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